Character

I haven’t made a post for a while now, for several reasons: I’m still finishing off Charlie Higson’s dystopian series for teens (I’m reading The End and hoping that all my many questions are answered); I started teaching my Readers’ Advisory class at UCLA this past Tuesday and have spent some of my time preparing for that (mostly cleaning up my combination office/art studio so it’s fit to be seen in the background of Zoom); and I’ve been rather caught up in the political events of the day (unhealthy obsession with Facebook posts). But I should be at the end of The End soon, and on to my next read.

In the meantime, the combination of contemplating “appeals” for readers’ advisory and doing a massive clear-out, clean-up, and re-shelving of my entire library of fiction in my four bedroom bookshelves caused me to think about the nature of “character” as a dominating force in fiction.

To explain a bit for those who are not up on librarian lingo, appeals are what we call the various reasons why people enjoy what they read. Some people are motivated by adrenalin and want something fast-paced and exciting; others love beautiful language and want to be wooed by unusual or lyrical phrasing; and one particularly powerful appeal is that of “character.” The ability to identify with or, alternatively, loathe a character or set of characters in a book is one aspect that draws people to read more. The success of the belabored Harry Potter franchise is largely due to the desire to find out what happens next to the maturing Harry and his friends, and all of us can probably think of a book or five whose characters were what kept us coming back to its pages. A few recent books in which character dominated include Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, A Man Called Ove, and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. (A major clue as to whether the book is character-driven is if the main character’s name appears in the title. Witness Harry Potter and the….)

As I have mentioned here several times, belonging to the Facebook group “What Should I Read Next?” is sometimes an exercise in patience, because most of the readers there have become caught up in the bestseller craze and all end up reading the same 12 books. So in the effort to find them—and you—other compelling reads, I thought I would spend a blog post examining some of my past favorites that are wholly about the character.

A compelling writer of character-driven works is the author Mary Renault, and although her entire oeuvre contains much to appreciate, there is not another that rivals The Persian Boy, her tale of a bed slave named Bagoas who was abducted, gelded, and sold as a courtesan to King Darius of Persia. When Alexander and his Macedonian army conquer the Persians, Bagoas finds himself in a rather untenable position and decides he will achieve safety only by ingratiating himself with the conqueror himself. Although Alexander is quick to see the appeal of this highly motivated slave, he is slow to take advantage of his utter dependency, and the courtship between the two of them is both touching and fiery.

The Persian Boy is actually the second in a series of three books Renault wrote about Alexander. The early years, when he rises from a beleaguered son of warring parents to become the master of all lands he surveys, are covered in Fire from Heaven, in which he experiences love and trust for the first time with his best friend and fellow warrior, Hephaistion. But that book is far more event-driven, whereas The Persian Boy, being narrated from the point of view of someone with whom Alexander had a solely personal connection, is limited in scope in terms of world events but much more specific about the relationships. It is, in fact, a love story, and I would regard it as one of the great ones, containing as it does not just attraction or romance but also loss and pain, desire and jealousy, joy, courage, and cowardice. It is an exceedingly intimate view of Alexander the man beside that of Alexander the great warrior, and is filtered through the emotions and psychology of a patient bystander.

At the beginning of the third book, Funeral Games, Alexander the Great lies dying, surrounded by his former generals, satraps, and wives, all competing like wolves for the prizes of power and land. Only the two loves of his life, Hephaistion and Bagoas, realize and truly mourn what has been lost. Funeral Games documents the disintegration of the mighty empire built in 20 years and brings Alexander’s saga from age 12 to 33 to its close.

There is a variability of voice in these tales that lets them be read as a series but also allows the reader to experience them as stand-alone novels. The first is told in the first person by Alexander; the second is the purview of Bagoas; and the third is written from a third-person observer stance. I discovered and read The Persian Boy first, only picking up the others afterwards, and felt no sense that anything was missing in that first reading. When people ask for an LGBTQ love story that goes beyond the contemporary meet-cute or the simultaneous struggle with coming out that invades so many of these stories, my thoughts immediately return to the yearning and transcendent happiness contained with the pages of Renault’s classic work.

Another protagonist with whom I have been in love since the first time I read the book is Shevek, the humble man and brilliant physicist at the heart of Ursula K. LeGuin’s book The Dispossessed. The book is a recounting of an existential thought experiment: The author posits what would happen to individuals in a social system that rewards conformity, although that social system in this case is based on a sort of group anarchy. Urras is a world much like our own, driven by commerce. Within its teeming millions is a group of individuals who wish to live their lives quite differently and, because Anarres, the moon of their planet, is suitable (though not ideal) for human life, they are allowed to colonize it. The two societies make a pact that neither will invade the other and, for more than 100 years, not one individual from either society has crossed the line between them except for shipments of supplies that arrive and leave the small port on Anarres.

A map I made to illustrate LeGuin’s masterpiece.

Shevek grows up in this ascetic society, a planned utopia where no one takes precedence over anyone else, where each is valued but all are expected to make their contribution to society in return for a place in it. He does his part, planting trees in the desert, drawing food service or waste management tasks for 10 days at a time, and through it all manages to find a great love, Takver, and have children; but while he goes through these tasks of daily life, his brain is operating on another plain—trying to understand temporal physics—that demands discussion, the exchange of ideas, and a close relationship with those on his mental level who are capable of understanding his brilliance. Ultimately, he makes the choice, despite the possibility of losing his home, his family, perhaps even his life, to go back to Urras to see what the scientists of that world have to offer him.

The fascinating part of the book is how the society on Anarres was originally founded as a profound act of nonconformity, and yet ends up suppressing originality and demanding obedience from a man chafing under its restrictions. LeGuin achieves her objective—the exploration of the concept of freedom—by letting the reader recognize the virtues of the system under which Shevek lives and
then realize how stifling it has become, without being either polemical or strident.

If it weren’t for the “stigma” of being categorized as science fiction, I believe this book would take its place amongst the most important of classic novels, and that Shevek would be a much more well-known protagonist in the reading world.

Some books you love for a protagonist, and some for an entire cast of characters. In the second category are the books by E. F. Benson that were latterly brought together in an Omnibus volume called Make Way for Lucia. There are six Mapp and Lucia novels in the series, and they must be read in order, for events take on importance in a specific sequence that must be appreciated.

At first glance, you might not think that a view into the social world of upper-middle class Edwardian village dwellers would be particularly compelling. But what you have to understand about the Mapp and Lucia books is the exaggerated degree of sheer triviality that guarantees a contrary fascination. Benson had a disdain for middle class people pretending to a rank to which they are not entitled, and his satires of these mushrooms trying to push their way into high society are brilliant and also funny as hell.

The books feature the feuding doyennes of Riseholme and Tilling, whose decidedly bourgeois residents get flustered in the presence of noble titles but king and queen it in the presence of everyone else. The main protagonists—or should we call them pugilists?—are Emmeline Lucas, designated “Lucia,” and Elizabeth Mapp. Though the stories begin with each of them ruling their respective roosts with total social supremacy in their separate villages, fate brings them together to hilarious effect. But the reader is not solely reliant on Lucia and Miss Mapp in these stories; Benson has created a whole cast of characters, including the dashing Georgie Pillson, aging bachelor, with his elbow-length cape and carefully trained piece of hair draped over his scalp; the drunken and slightly naughty Major Benjy; artist and naked sunbather Irene Coles; Mrs. Boucher with her daughters, Piggy and Goosie, in tow; and so many more. The tempests in the teapots that are the meat of these ’20s and ’30s comedies of manners are hilarious, witty, and slightly nasty. In other words, inspired. Auberon Waugh, eldest son of Evelyn, said,

“I might have gone to my grave
without ever knowing about
Lucia and Miss Mapp. It is not a risk
anyone should take lightly.”

It’s about time for me to read them for the third time.

I hope you have enjoyed this meander through some character-driven books, and that it will inspire you to look them up for yourself or to reflect on the characters that have come to life for you during your lifetime of reading. If any compelling ones occur to you, please share!

The Kiss-off

one2watchSometimes themes develop accidentally, as you pick up a book here, a book there, and then view all of them at once, deciding what to read next. This particular theme was “fat women,” with one chick-lit debut and one YA by an author already known for heroines with size diversity.

Reviewing One to Watch, by Kate Stayman-London, forces me to confess a deep and shameful secret: I have been known to tune in to an episode or two of The Bachelor or The Bachelorette. Let me hasten to say that I am not one of what the host calls “Bachelor Nation” (ahem pretentious much?)—in fact, it’s been more hate-watching than anything—but I have, over the many surprising seasons it has continued its hackneyed formulaic road to romance, checked it out. The primary motivation for this is a complex cocktail of wanting to see the pretty people and the exotic locales, to mock the uniformly sincere expressions of all the participants who think they might have feelings for someone with whom they have spent six hours, and to marvel at the idiocy or bewilderment of the families who condone this behavior by one of their own. The primary result has been to irritate my cat, who doesn’t like it when I talk back to the television set, particularly when it’s in a scathing tone; but somehow I am as unable to resist seeing what’s going on just once a season as I am prone to wonder who will win Dancing with the Stars.

For that reason, the idea that the show would cast a bachelorette who was of a body type not seen on television unless the actress is playing a grandmother or a police chief intrigued me. A bachelorette who wasn’t a size 4? One who might actually sit down at one of those candlelit tables and eat the delectable dishes laid out in front of her, rather than spend the whole meal sipping her wine and whining about her feelings? Bring it on.

The whole concept that a normal woman—that is to say, someone closer to the American average of size 16—could be celebrated as desirable to 25 bachelors seeking matrimony is enticing, though problematic. After all, regardless of the inclusion of body positivity, the show is still set up to see romance as a cattle-call competition, with the women as prizes.

I am somewhat embarrassed to say, therefore, that I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to someone looking for a story with a protagonist to whom they can relate: Someone who has transformed themselves on the outside but is still vulnerable and afraid beneath the surface; someone who decides she is brave enough to take a chance but who then constantly second-guesses herself based on everything that has been pounded into her by society, her family, other women, the men who have failed to requite her love, and the relentless trolls on the internet.

Bea Schumacher is a confident and stylish 30-year-old plus-size fashion blogger. She has good friends, a loving family, thousands of Instagram followers, but no romance. Her secret crush has strung her along for years, and has recently caused her to swear off men for the foreseeable future. But after she writes a blistering blog post about the show Main Squeeze  (The Bachelor, thinly veiled) with its lack of body diversity or, for that matter, any kind of diversity in its legions of skinny white people going on fantasy dates, the show calls her and asks if she will be the next star. Bea agrees, but she tells the show’s new producer, Lauren, that on no account will she actually fall in love. She’s going on the show to make a point about anti-fat beauty standards, and maybe to boost her list of followers into seven figures.

Of course things will get more complicated. Of course she will be upset, confused, intrigued, tempted, repulsed, angered, and beguiled as she spends 10 weeks supposedly looking for love. But she can’t possibly let go of all her preconceived notions and believe in the HEA, can she?

The thing I liked about this book was that it turned the reality show on its ear. Yes, there were meet-cute moments and embarrassing tests and awkward interludes just like on the real-life show, but in between that, because Bea isn’t the usual fare, the bachelors (who are mostly the usual fare, either muscular and dumbly sincere or sharp, handsome, and deeply cynical), get jolted out of their complacency as she attempts to have conversations with them that don’t revolve around the typical inanities. Bea is portrayed as a real person, and she reaches out to find the real person in each of the men she ends up with after the “extras” have been kissed off. (I loved that instead of “will you accept this rose,” the woman here gives them a lipstick kiss or “kisses them off,” depending.) As on the show, you really have trouble trusting that the men are telling the truth about themselves, their feelings, and their motivations, which is compounded in the case of Bea.

I thought the author nailed the struggles of being a plus-sized woman, wavering from confident to terrified as she is confronted by the cruelty of society towards women who don’t conform to insane standards of beauty. (She also had some fun pointing out how a blind eye is turned to men in that same category.) She didn’t fall for the temptation to make her protagonist lose weight in order to find her HEA, she forced the show, the men, and the viewing public to accept Bea as she was.

The depiction of the reality TV world—the way things are manipulated to make ratings, the descriptions of the fancy wardrobe, the tensions of the timetable—were well done, as was the use of the social media inserts into the story—text messages, emails, TMZ articles, tweets, and blog posts all added dimension to the story.

Ultimately, the book does pander to wish fulfillment, but then, what did you expect? It’s a rom-com. But it’s entertainingly written and told, and does have a lot to offer about false standards of beauty and their equation with worth. So I say, a positive review.

BlogDingbat

By contrast, I became almost immediately impatient with both the author and the protagonist of Julie Murphy’s new book, Faith Taking Flight. I should have known better than to broach this book with no expectations, because I found her previous book, Dumplin’, to be full of contradictions that didn’t lend themselves to her avowed goal of advocating for plus-size teens. But the prospect of a fat girl who could fly grabbed my attention, and I jumped in with enthusiasm.

faithMy enthusiasm quickly turned to dismay and derision as I experienced the thin plot development regarding the flying skills. Faith meets Peter, who tells her she’s been chosen to go through some kind of conversion to turn her into a superhero, because she has the potential to become a psiot. This conversation takes place at the mall. Then he tells her (alarm bells should be ringing) that she has to perpetrate a “cover” for herself over the summer—to tell her grandmother that she’s off to journalism camp. She agrees! She climbs trustingly onto a bus, goes to a secret underground facility, is locked in a room and assigned a uniform and a number, and then realizes she’s an experimental subject. Meanwhile, her granny (her guardian) sends mail and makes phone calls for the entire six weeks that she’s gone; Grandma Lou receives not one response, and doesn’t see this as a problem or institute any kind of inquiry, just assumes her granddaughter is fine? Come on. We discover later (way too late in the book) that Faith actually escapes from the facility with Peter’s help, whereupon she simply goes home and does nothing—doesn’t call the authorities, or wonder about all the other kids who were trapped there with her—she just gets a part-time job at an animal shelter, and resumes school in the fall. But this is the most unbelievable part of the entire story: She doesn’t fly! She has this ability, which would excite most of us beyond belief, and she doesn’t go out every night to try it out? doesn’t practice? doesn’t test her limits or tell her friends? No. She pulls it out when necessary (to save someone from falling off a roof, or to look for her grandmother when she wanders off, a victim of senile dementia) and that’s it. Right.

Meanwhile, we have the secondary plot, which is actually the primary one considering how much space it fills in the 338 pages of the book: The cast and crew of the teen soap opera (The Grove) with which Faith has been obsessed since childhood—to the point where she writes the premiere blog about it and publishes weekly recaps and commentary—moves its filming destination to her town, and the star of the show, Dakota Ash, supposedly meets cute with her over adopting a dog from the shelter, but then confesses that she has read the blog and knows who Faith is. Faith is over the moon (but still not literally, because not flying), and we get a lot of detail on this relationship, hurt feelings from abandoned “regular” friends as she tours the lot and has milk shakes with the star, yadda yadda. Oh, and this is the point where Faith explores the idea that she might be gay…or bi? After all, in addition to the tempting Dakota there’s also her journalism swain, Johnny….

Enter third plot: Animals (both strays and pets), homeless people, and random teenage girls have disappeared from town and no one can find them. One dog and one girl reappear, but are catatonic and provide no clues to the mystery.

So how does all of this fit together? Badly. Improbably. Unconvincingly. Incompletely. Because…there may be a sequel in the works. Yeah. Which would actually be good if it clears up any of the picked up and dropped plot points, the fuzzy background and world-building, and Faith’s inexplicable reluctance to use her friggin’ superpower! But based on this one, I highly doubt it. I discovered on Goodreads that this is a prequel novelization of a superhero from Valiant Entertainment comics. If I were the author of those comics, I would not be happy at this moment.

Before I forget, allow me to address the fat girls in the room: Murphy punts in this book as she does in Dumplin’. She gives the heroine the possibility of a romance or two in which Faith speculates, “But what could they see in ME?” and she almost lets her have it, but then pulls back to deliver the same blow fat girls always endure, when they are told that they are not special and that no one would want them. Yeah, maybe that message served the plot at that particular moment, but aren’t we all tired of the incessant battering of that already bruised spot on the fragile fat-girl ego? I know I am.

I finished the book, but I confess that it was only so I could better skewer it. Faith herself is an ebullient and somewhat refreshing protagonist, but she’s so weighed down by a thin, chaotic and nonsensical story line that she’ll never, ever get off the ground.

 

Internat’l Cat Day

GidgetGelI woke up this morning and checked the calendar to discover that it’s International Cat Day! I must commemorate that, or Gidget and the spirits of all my house cats who have gone before will haunt me. Here, therefore is an eclectic and by no means complete list of some books that feature felines as protagonists and companions. The array of adult books seem to fall into one of two camps: The cats who solve mysteries with their human counterparts, and the cats of science fiction, who are sentient to various degrees. The children’s books celebrate cats in all ways possible from the realistic to the bizarre. These are in no particular order, except possibly by the age of the humans to which they may appeal. If you wish to find hundreds more books about cats, look here, under “lists” in Goodreads.

ADULT BOOKS

The Cat Who… mysteries, by Lilian Jackson Braun, in which a reporter and his cat solve mysteries. First book: The Cat Who Could Read Backwards.

The Mrs. Murphy mysteries, by Rita Mae Brown & Sneaky Pie Brown, in which Mrs. Murphy and her human companion solve mysteries. First book: Wish You Were Here.

The Joe Grey mysteries, by Shirley Rousseau Murphy, in which there are talking cats and also a human who discovers an ability to morph into a cat. First book: Cat on the Edge.

Catfantastic: Nine Lives and Fifteen Tales, by Andre Norton, editor, in which sci fi and fantasy writers tell tall tales about furry felines. (Short stories.)

CatAlberta

The Dalai Lama’s Cat, by David Michie, in which the Tibetan Buddhist leader’s cat offers insights on happiness and meaning.

The Chanur novels, by C. J. Cherryh, in which a leonine species—the Chanur—take in a human refugee and by so doing threaten the interspecies Compact. First book: The Pride of Chanur.

The Cinder Spires books, by Jim Butcher, in which there are also cat clans and some naval airship action. First book: The Aeronaut’s Windlass.

The Cult of the Cat books, by Zoe Kalo, in which Trinity is left with a dead grandmother and a thousand grieving cats. A sort of Egyptian urban fantasy. First book: Daughter of the Sun.

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, by T. S. Eliot, in which the author describes cats each by their distinct personality. (Poetry.) Someone should set this to music…

FOR CHILDREN:

Millions of Cats, by Wanda Gág, in which a lonely old couple acquires companions. This is known as the original picture book for children.

The Cat in the Hat, by Dr. Seuss, in which Sally and her brother receive a visit from a madcap cat.

CatGeorgeSocks, by Beverly Cleary, in which the cat has to learn to share his family with their new baby.

The Warriors books, by Erin Hunter, in which a house cat discovers clans of cats living in the wild in the forest…. First book: Into the Wild.

Varjak Paw books, by S. F. Said & Dave McKean (illustrator), in which a cat goes Outside and overcomes challenges.

The Wildings books, by Nilanjana Roy, in which a small band of cats lives in the alleys and ruins of Nizamuddin, an old neighborhood in Delhi, India.

The Feline Wizards series, by Diane Duane, in which feline wizards time travel to avert disasters. First book: The Book of Night with Moon.

The Cat Pack books, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, in which brothers Marco and Polo go adventuring. First book: The Grand Escape.

The Black Cat Chronicles, by Aileen Pettigrew, in which there are cats, zombies, and magic. First book: Soul Thief.

Stray, by A. N. Wilson, in which a cat without a home tells his own rather bleak story.

Tales of the Barque Cats, by Anne McCaffrey, in which cats are essential members of the crews of space vessels…until an epidemic threatens their extinction.

The Incredible Journey, by Sheila Burnford, in which a bull terrier named Bodger, a Labrador retriever called Luath, and Tao, a Siamese cat, travel 300 miles through the Canadian wilderness to reunite with their people.

CatQueenBea

Chosen

I’m struggling with how to convey my reaction to this book. It’s Chosen Ones, by Veronica Roth, her first “adult” novel (she’s famous for the Divergent YA series). It’s almost like there were three books contained within this one, and I really liked one of them, I mostly liked but was confused by the second one, and about the third one I was quite ambivalent. (Not in that order.)

ChosenOnesI like the concept, which is, What happens to heroes after their mission is complete? They have done their job and defeated the evil force, and now what will life look like? But the concept is also part of the problem: Because the book is being written 10 years after the central event—the defeat of the Dark One—that was the major turning point in the five Chosen Ones’ lives, we get a confusing and contradictory look at those events, depending on to whom we are listening. It’s obvious that the trial had a devastating effect on at least some of these people, but a couple of them—Matt and Esther—seem to have recovered just fine and are using their fame to good purpose. The others—Ines, Albie, and Sloane—seem permanently stuck. Albie and Sloane, who were held and tortured by the Dark One, suffer cruelly from PTSD and are awash in misery and guilt. When the book opens, Sloane has just requested some top secret documents from the government about the events in question because, even after all these years, she feels like she doesn’t know either the truth or the scope of what happened, and she needs to make sense of it so she can move on. The documents do add to the narrative (and it’s fun to have them inserted into the text), and they do explain some things, but they bring up as much as they explain.

Anyway, the Dark One has been vanquished, the five are trapped in their celebrity stereotypes, doing the rounds of public appearances for such things as anniversaries and dedications, and everyone is in a holding pattern. Then, a tragedy brings them together, and they are suddenly being challenged to do battle again, with a foe possibly even more powerful and terrifying than the first.

At this point in the book, right after a major transition, things kind of come to a halt. There’s a lot of talk-talk about the sitch, multiple training scenarios for new techniques to vanquish the enemy, and the narrative gets a bit turgid. Then Sloane, ever the curmudgeonly rebel and loner, decides to step outside the box, and in Part Three, things finally get lively.

I have read many books in which it is necessary to set up a past, to explain current scenarios, and then move into the present-day action. This book doesn’t do a great job at that. Part of it is that we are too much inside people’s heads (mostly Sloane’s) and it’s a mess in there. Part of it is that there is not much focus—no linear story-telling here, you’re supposed to pick it all up on the fly as events and people jump around, and sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t.

I did end up liking the book, mostly because of two characters (Sloane and another I won’t mention because it’s a spoiler, but he’s way cool). When they finally begin to figure things out, plan, and interact, the pace accelerates and we get not only some action but also some surprising information that causes the rest of the story to suddenly make more sense. But it seems to me it’s way too long in coming,
and a less motivated reader might give up before arriving at this point in the book.

There were also some inexplicable things: In mystery writing they always tell you, Don’t mention a gun unless it gets used in the next scene. The same goes for characters, and one person in this one who you rightfully expect to be major (or at least present!) simply disappears from the action, with no comment or explanation, despite her supposedly central role. There are also some “reasons” for various phenomena that are patently absurd, but…it is a sort of a comic book of a story, after all. Still, it’s nice when science fiction actually adheres to some consistent form of science, even if it’s invented.

Finally, this book is numbered “Chosen #1” in Goodreads, which would imply a sequel; but there is no cliffhanger or any sign at the end that a sequel will be forthcoming or even necessary. Perhaps that’s a good way to handle it—since there is no foreshadowing, the sequel could be literally anything the author pleases. It just seemed weird not to have at least a few ominous threads left dangling.

I would recommend the book, because the ideas are ingenious and at least two of the characters are compelling, ironic, and occasionally darkly humorous. And I will read the sequel, because this one engaged my curiosity sufficiently about where the story will go next. But it’s definitely a mixed bag.

Also, similar to Leigh Bardugo’s “adult” book Ninth House, this feels more like NA (new adult) than anything more mature.

 

Nnedi Okorafor

BintiFor some time now, I have meant to catch up with other readers, reviewers, and critics who have sung the praises of Nnedi Okorafor and bestowed multiple science fiction awards on her various writings. I was initially only aware (because of my profession) of her young adult books, Akata Witch and Binti, so I decided to start with Binti.

I was immediately fascinated. Binti is a marvelous protagonist, a 16-year-old of the Himba tribe of Namibia, whose traditional and isolationist family and culture nonetheless prepare her, through a magical gift for mathematics, for defiance of her family’s wishes. She receives a mathematics scholarship from the prestigious Oomza University, and bravely and optimistically chooses to attend this cosmopolitan and multiracial (as in, alien races) galactic institution despite the many fears with which she has been imbued by her family. The details of how she insistently brings her cultural identity along with her, despite the judgment and sometimes shock of the reactions around her, and her quiet persistence in finding a way to fit in are an arresting narrative. On the transport ship, she meets a diverse group of young people headed for the university and begins to find her footing and make friends.

Then, five days before the ship reaches its destination, a cultural conflict confronts the entire university as the Meduse, a fantastical race of beings bent on revenge over a thoughtless cultural appropriation, turn Binti’s transport into a nightmare of death, and Binti must act as the representative for the human race, despite her marginalized placement within it.

I was completely fascinated by this tale and thus completely outraged when it ended a few pages later! I had no idea it was a novella of 90 pages, and frankly wonder why it was published in that form. There is a huge story here, with so many intriguing ideas and influences to be unpacked, and rather than developing it into the full-length book that those details demanded, Okorafor instead wrote three novellas to cover the same material, and sacrificed continuity, in my opinion.

WhofearsdeathI decided, based on her facility for character creation and world-building, to give one of her full-length adult novels a try, so I picked up Who Fears Death from the library for my Kindle and began making my way through
that one.

For sheer scope and number of ideas and themes, I’ve never read anything comparable; but one could wish that Okorafor would slim down her vision to tell just the story she’s in at the moment, instead of including every conflict, controversy, and social injustice of which she can conceive.

This is at once a post-apocalyptic tale of the Sudan, centuries older than our own but still plagued by savage internecine war between the Okeke and Nuru; a coming-of-age story; and a “savior” quest. The initial focus of the book’s protagonist, Onyesonwu, is on her own story and how it highlights all the problems of her society. She is a child of rape who faces persecution based on her mixed-race status as an Ewu, and is also discriminated against because of her gender. It is a severely misogynist landscape in which such horrors as female genital mutilation are still practiced. The early parts of the book relate her struggles in these areas, as well as her frustrated pursuit of a magical mentor to help her come to terms with her emerging powers.

I had trouble at first understanding that this was supposed to be post-apocalyptic. The problems with the society seemed both contempo-rary and timeless, and it wasn’t until well into the book, when some comments were made about the sins of the Okeke as regards technology, that I realized that was part of the history. It was hard to distinguish between the Okeke and the Nuru when all was said and done, since the Okeke were the victims while having previously been the people with the upper hand in society, while the Nuru, despite their single-minded persecution of the Okeke, seemed in some ways more advanced, or at least more benign. (Don’t misunderstand—both tribes were repellent in their treatment of anyone not “one of us.”)

After the growing-up phase of Onyesonwu’s life, the story takes a turn towards the necessity for her to learn and control her powers, and the reluctance or outright refusal of most of the (male) wizards to take her on as an apprentice or, in fact, teach her at all. She does manage to get her training, but it’s a rather interminable part of the book as you watch what she goes through to achieve it, and grew wearying before the end.

Then, the story turns again as Onyesonwu realizes that she has a pivotal role to play in the salvation of her people. She and her lover and friends set out on a quest across the desert to stop the genocide happening in the Seven Rivers region, and their squabbles and travels are at some points interesting and at others aggravating in their repetitiveness.

My favorite part of the book is in this third section, when the travelers meet up and stay with the Red People, nomads protected by a dust storm who, unlike the other tribes of the country, embrace their social pleasures without being proprietary about them, and to whom the concept of misogyny seems largely foreign. Being open to all things, they find that life is sweet, which is a strange concept to Onyesonwu and her companions.

At the point where the travelers, number reduced, depart the desert and head into their destiny as saviors of the Okeke and Nuru is where the book completely lost me. Onyesonwu has various ideas about how she is to accomplish this mission: One is destroying her father, the powerful magician whose act of rape created her; another crops up out of nowhere near the end of the book, which is to physically rewrite the “Good Book” followed by various sects of each tribe (but with no explanation of specifically how it would be rewritten and what that would achieve in terms of the genocide); and yet another seems like simply a fatalistic meeting of her ordained death, which will somehow transform the world. And that’s what we are left with—a confusing exploration of all of these things, with no real resolution or sense of a goal met. I have absolutely no clue what actually happens at the end.

I found this book so ambitious and at the same time so frustrating. Okorafor unflinchingly explores such issues as rape, child abuse, female genital mutilation, adolescent sexuality, and genocide, all subjects that need to be faced. But she does so by creating some frankly unlikable characters whose flaws are so great that it’s hard to have patience with them, let alone read nearly 400 pages about their journey. I still could have gone with it, however, if not for the utterly confusing ending, which takes the entire slow, minutely examined quest of Onyesonwu to “solve” genocide, sums it up in a few pages, and then rewrites itself in three separate epilogues! (I think I have mentioned before how little I enjoy 99 percent of epilogues in fiction.)

Perhaps I am just not sufficiently tuned into this book or its author to get the point of this saga; but from my perspective, a story with meticulous world-building and an interesting premise simply went off the rails and failed to fulfill its promise despite its author’s obvious brilliance.

 

Fresh look: old books

Perhaps, during this time of forced social inactivity, you are ready to get stuck into an immersive series. And perhaps that series should take you away from this uncertain present and into a past, future, or parallel world compelling enough that you can live there for a few days. Here are some suggestions…

knifeFirst of all, written for young adults but really just an exciting sci fi series for anyone, is the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness. The books are The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, and Monsters of Men.

The series begins in Prentisstown, an outpost on a planet that is not Earth, a village whose population is mostly hick farmers, 100 percent male, and possessed of an interesting anomaly: They can all hear one another’s thoughts.

It’s not like telepathy, though, it’s more like a constant barrage of the unconscious things people think to themselves in their heads. There’s a reason they call it “the Noise.” It’s almost impossible to withstand, although they all work hard to guard their own thoughts and resist those of the others.

A short way into the story we are introduced to the last boy in Prentisstown, who will become a man on his 13th birthday. But everything he has been told by his fathers, his preacher, the mayor, is a lie:

  1. All the women on the planet caught a virus and died: LIE.
  2. That same virus is what caused “the Noise” in the men: LIE.
  3. This is the only settlement on the planet: LIE.
  4. All of the “aliens” who used to live on this planet are dead: LIE.

Todd Hewitt’s world has fallen apart. After he makes an interesting discovery that exposes one of these lies, his fathers kick him out of the house to save him, and he is on the run, with his talking dog Manchee. A madman preacher and a power-hungry mayor are chasing him for some reason, and he is about to discover that most of what he thinks he knows is just not true. Worst of all, he is pursued by “the Noise.” Imagine how hard it is to hide when you can hear every stray and random thought of everyone within a couple-mile radius—and they can hear yours.

With underlying themes of genocide, slavery, racism, and sexism, this series is an addictive page-turner that starts with a slow burn and increases the heat from chapter to chapter and book to book, ratcheting up the tension to an almost unbearable peak as Ness lays the foundations for the climax. It’s a fascinating combination of science fiction, coming of age, and  social commentary that’s hard to resist.

sacredA story that may resonate with you at this time in history when the One Percent owns more of the world’s wealth than the other 99 put together is contained in the three-book series by Starhawk: The Fifth Sacred Thing, Walking to Mercury, and City of Refuge. These books tell of a utopia and a dystopia that exist side by side within the future state of California. In the northern end of the state, a group of old women start a revolution in the streets of San Francisco that ends in a cooperative state in which sustenance is shared by all, and the motto is, “There is a place for you at our table should you decide to join us.” The water flows freely, the streets have been torn up and turned into gardens, personal freedom is as important as personal responsibility, and the entire “village” not only raises the child but looks out for everyone else as well. Meanwhile, down south, centered on Los Angeles, the contrast couldn’t be greater: It is the ultimate expression of the haves versus the have-nots. The haves live in shuttered mansions with swimming pools and drive armored cars and control the army by putting drugs in their food, while the have-nots quarrel over a tin cup of water or a morsel of bread, and are daily more emaciated as they work harder and harder only to starve and die. What happens when the rulers of the south turn their eyes northward and decide that the bounty they see there should also belong to them?

worldsA group of books that is only loosely a series is known as the Hainish Cycle, written by formidable sci-fi talent Ursula K. LeGuin, and spanning decades of her career. There are both major (award-winning) and minor books contained within this grouping, and although I read them as they were published, I have never gone back and put them in the proper order to see the overall evolution of the Ekumen, a star-spanning society that is the League of All Worlds. There is no internal consistency among these books, nor is there an over-arching story line, but the presence of the Ekumen, either behind the scenes or in the thick of the action, makes LeGuin’s works into a philosophical whole. The first three books (Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, and City of Illusions) can be had in one volume called Worlds of Exile and Illusion; after those, it’s The Left Hand of Darkness, The Word for World is Forest, The Dispossessed, the short stories of Five Ways to Forgiveness and A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, and culminating in The Telling.

Reading all of these sequentially and all at one go would be a tremendous undertaking, and you would have to get a feel from reading the early books whether LeGuin is one of “your” authors or not…but reading them all gives a heightened sense of what’s at stake when an alliance of worlds decides to interact with deeply complex cultures in the attempt to forge further connections. The layers of psychology, sociology, and sheer human orneriness that LeGuin encompasses are fascinating.

These are all ambitious suggestions, and also pretty serious reading. For my next post, I’ll look for series just as engaging and every bit as long, but perhaps a little more lighthearted.

 

Fresh look: old books

In the realm of science fiction writing, it mostly seems like the guys get all the love, so for this foray into older reads, I’m going to focus on some interesting and talented women writers, those who specifically address the interaction between humans and “aliens,” or between races of people, with a psychological, cultural, religious, and/or philosophical bent. The fact that these books, some of them decades old, are also completely relevant to many of our current circumstances is the mark of a good speculative fiction writer…

sparrowFirst up are two books by Mary Doria RussellThe Sparrow, and Children of God. Russell has a background as a paleoanthropologist, and she makes excellent use of it in this two-book tale of humans’ first contact with an extra-terrestrial civilization. The action in the first book jumps back and forth between 2016, when an expedition is being put together in response to the discovery of extraterrestrial life (obviously a 2016 more advanced than our own!), and 2059, when the leader of that expedition, a charismatic Catholic priest and linguist who is its sole survivor, is being examined by the Vatican in search of an explanation for how first contact could have gone so horribly wrong. In the second book, Father Emilio Sandoz is forced to return with a second expedition to discover all the ways in which the impact of the first mission has shifted the cultures of the dominant and submissive races on the planet. Russell writes a good story, but also explores sociological, spiritual, and scientific aspects of the situation she has postulated, resulting in a compelling read.

Ursula K. LeGuin is one of my favorite authors ever. She wrote the entire spectrum from fantasy to hardcore science fiction, but all from a philosophical, sociological, and anthropological viewpoint that makes them particularly fascinating answers to “what if?” (Her father was an anthropologist and her mother was a writer.)

earthseaOn the fantasy end of the spectrum are the Earthsea books, which started out as a trilogy (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore), but then got added to with a book of short stories (Tales from Earthsea) and two more sequels (Tehanu and The Other Wind). I point that out because while the original trilogy is completely satisfying, you wouldn’t want to miss the other two books; and the short stories add depth to the world she created, a world that is deceptively simple but that contains timeless and sophisticated themes.

dispoAmong Le Guin’s many other books, my favorites are The Dispossessed—about a group of utopians who left their planet’s surface 100 years ago to settle on the moon so they could pursue their chosen lifestyle, and what happens when a physicist on the moon decides that he will break the forbidden silence between the two planets—and The Left Hand of Darkness—about a planet that is being considered by an Envoy (a person who travels to new civilizations to check them out) for membership in a vast intergalactic association. The sentient species on this planet is both male and female, and can switch genders, depending on various environmental and emotional factors, so that one person can be both a mother and a father in the course of their lives. The Envoy is the only person on the entire planet who is one-gendered, and it’s a strange experience for him, needless to say. LeGuin was always “fashion forward” in terms of the themes of her books, so for her to explore gender issues so thoroughly before the rest of us took notice is no surprise.

Next on my list is Sheri S. Tepper, who had a varied career as an executive director of Rocky Mountain Planned Parenthood in Colorado, a guest ranch owner in Santa Fe and, later in life, a prolific science fiction author.

famtreeMy favorite is The Family Tree. Police officer Dora Henry is looking into the murders of three geneticists who were working on a secret project. But while she is conducting her investigation, bizarre things start to occur: Plants start taking over the city, and dictating where people can and can’t drive by blocking the roads with trees. The weirdest part is that Dora can somehow communicate with the plants. Dora comes to realize (through an agency that I can’t reveal because it’s such a spoiler) that there is the potential for a civilization-ending catastrophe that she may be a key figure in averting. This is such a quirky and entertaining read, not to mention environmentally relevant for all of us in this particular moment.

Tepper has her own entry in the “alien contact” trope, and it’s a good one. It’s called The Fresco, and it starts out with a hilarious sequence in which Benita Alvarez-Shipton, the abused wife of an alcoholic loser, runs into two aliens in a remote wooded area of the New Mexico mountains, and they designate her, despite her protests that she’s “not anybody,” to take their message to her leader. So she hops on a plane to Washington, D.C. and tries to explain it all to her congressman. She thinks that’s an end to her involvement, but the aliens have more in mind for her to do. The book is a vehicle for cultural, political, and religious issues, and Tepper does, to be fair, have a particular agenda. But since I mostly agreed with her agenda, I enjoyed the book! You might, too. It’s wickedly humorous, as well.

snowAnother great sci fi writer is Joan D. Vinge. Her epic series is contained in three volumes: The Snow Queen, World’s End, and The Summer Queen, which are about a backwards little planet called Tiamat that happens to be a key transition point at the core of a galaxy, and the so-called primitives whose quaint society is maintained without change by the powers-that-be on other planets, simply to keep the transition point open for their trade ships, none of which stop at this planet. Every 150 years the “star-gate” closes, and then the primitives reign, but this time there are political moves being made to maintain the status quo. The theme of exploitation of a native people to maintain use of their natural resources lifts this trilogy beyond simple fantasy.

5thA classic book about what can happen when natural resources are treated with respect and what will happen when they are not is The Fifth Sacred Thing, by ecofeminist and permaculture teacher Starhawk. A group of spiritually and politically enlightened old women start a radical movement in the streets of San Francisco designed to result in a utopia in which water runs freely, everyone has enough to eat, and perfect equality is more than just a goal. By contrast, Los Angeles has adhered to the old ways, in which the people in power are privileged and everyone else is starving. What happens when these two cultures clash, the one an advocate of nonviolent resistance, the other a society with drug-reliant soldiers enslaved and trained to destroy? Walking to Mercury and City of Refuge are the sequels.

irustanFinally, although I’ve mentioned it here before, I’d like to remind readers of a particular book by Louise Marley, The Terrorists of Irustan. The book is set on a planet that was settled by humans long ago, but where the Second Book of the Prophet reigns, where men maintain their dominant male culture and women are not seen outside the home without being wrapped head to foot in veils. The only women who maintain a tiny portion of independence are those who are trained as medicants, the poor excuse for doctors on this planet. (The men find the profession of medicine distasteful.) These women treat the colonists injured in the rhodium mines, and also minister to any others who are sick and injured. One such medicant, Zahra IbSada, makes a controversial personal decision in the course of her duties that will have unexpectedly wide ramifications for the women
on her world.

This concludes our tour of some powerful speculative fiction writers and their tantalizing works. I hope you will consider them when you are in the mood to be entertained but also want something of substance to occupy your mind.

 

Fresh look: old book

Another entry for this occasional feature, looking back to favorite reads…

Louise Marley has written historical fiction, speculative fiction, and science fiction. I have two favorites:

glassharmThe Glass Harmonica has two protagonists in two different time periods, both of whom play the instrument (based on glass cups) invented by Benjamin Franklin (one in 1761 right after Franklin invented it, and one who is a classical musician in 2018), and it is a lovely combination of historical fiction and ghost story.

 

irustanThe Terrorists of Irustan is set in the future on another planet, giving it a science fiction classification, but the society on Irustan mirrors the claustrophobic restrictions imposed on women in conservative religious middle eastern countries today. The main character, Zahra, is a medicant and a subversive, hiding feminist heroism behind her silk veil, and her co-conspirator, Jing-Li, is perpetuating a fraud that could mean death were it discovered. The story is gripping, real, and relevant, a Handmaid’s Tale sort of dystopia.

 

Ew, zombies

girlgiftsAs I have mentioned before, I am neither a horror fan nor (specifically) particularly tolerant of gore, so that I would choose to read a zombie book (without prompting from my teen book club) seems unlikely. I actually picked up the book thinking it was a different young adult novel (and now I don’t know which one that was—it was about a girl whose parents locked her in the garage every night because she had scary abilities), and when I realized what The Girl with All the Gifts was, I almost put it down. But the protagonist immediately caught at my imagination, and I had to keep going. I’m glad I did.

I came late to this one (the book came out in 2014 and the movie apparently premiered in January of 2017 only to sink like a stone—I never heard of it, despite the inclusion of Glenn Close as Dr. Caldwell!), but I agree with author Maggie Stiefvater‘s analysis:

The most sure-footed novel I’ve read all year. A dystopian thriller with a real, beating heart. Recommend. Recommend. Recommend.

So many zombie books are basically action/adventure/gross-out, with people constantly trying to figure out ways to escape being eaten and/or turned. This one, on the other hand, is more of a philosophical analysis of what constitutes a human being, who is worth saving, and what acts are justified in the cause of scientific inquiry and the hope for a “cure.” That makes it sound pedantic and slow; be advised that it is also filled with action, chase scenes, creeping horror, and unbearable poignancy.

The book opens with a bunch of kids who are locked into wheelchairs to attend school. The viewpoint is Melanie’s, arguably the brightest girl in her class, who comments on the variety of teachers and subjects, her interactions with other personnel (including doctors, soldiers, and the other children), and the weekly routine, an undeniably bleak and peculiar one to be imposed on children. The reader gradually comes to realize what’s going on in this cell block locked away from the wider world (the setting is England), just in time for this routine to shift utterly and eject certain of the characters out into that world, following them to see how they fare.

The science—the kind of fungal infection that could plausibly mutate into a zombie-type disease—felt new and interesting. The characters who persist throughout the story are thoroughly developed, with an understanding of their motivations and aspirations. The dystopian world is horrifyingly bleak, and definitely conveys the feelings of the last few people in a dying apocalypse. But for all that, the book is fresh, the story is moving, and the conclusion both beautiful and terrifying.

BoyBridgeThere is a second book, The Boy on the Bridge. I initially thought I wouldn’t read it, because the ending of this one is so satisfying I didn’t feel the need; but that book turns out to be a prequel to this, answering some questions about things taken for granted in The Girl with All the Gifts, and I may have to go for it, distaste for zombies notwithstanding!

Although I believe the author wrote these books for adults, because of the age of the protagonists one could also consider them high on teen appeal. From my slightly squeamish position regardingly the sometimes excessively graphic detail, however, I don’t think I would recommend them to teens under the age of 16!

 

 

 

Cross-cultural sci fi

I’ve just gone on a reading odyssey not quite as lengthy or labyrinthine as Game of Thrones, but definitely of a complexity that would deter some readers! It’s a series containing four books, each of the first three coming in at around 500 pages, and culminating in a fourth book with a staggering 752! The series, by Kate Elliott, begins with Jaran. I had read Kate Elliott once before when I took a look at her young adult series that begins with The Court of Fives. I liked that one well enough to give it four stars on Goodreads, but not well enough to keep reading the rest of the series. But in my comments, one thing I mentioned that I did enjoy was the portrayal of the societal relations between the conquerors and the oppressed.

Books2RLThat turned out to be something that Elliott does even better in her adult novels, and I was immediately hooked by the deeply complex interrelationship of all the players on the board of this science fiction saga. My response to the first book was that it reminded me of a couple of Ursula K. LeGuin’s Hainish books (and I can’t pay a higher compliment than that). Similar to Rocannon’s World and The Left Hand of Darkness, it’s an anthropological science fiction story, with overlapping alien races who may know about each other but don’t know each other. It’s old school, and yet it’s fresh, and I enjoyed and was engaged by the way it unfolded.

In the first book, we learn that Earth has been subsumed into a vast galactic empire ruled by the alien Chapalii. At one point a human, Charles Soerensen, led a failed rebellion against their dominance, but rather than punishing him, the Chapalii inexplicably made him a “duke” of their kingdom and gave him dominion over an interdicted planet, Rhui. (What it means that the planet is interdicted: The native peoples are prohibited from knowing about space travel, alien or human technology, or anything that is beyond the development of their existing culture.)

KindleJaranOn Rhui, there are two types of people, the jaran and the khaja. Khaja is actually a jaran word for “not jaran,” otherwise designated by the jaran peoples as “barbarians.” The jaran are akin to the Romany people of Earth, in that they are nomadic, dwelling in tents and moving from place to place according to whim and affected only by weather and pasture. They are matrilineal, with female etsanas of twelve tribes deciding what’s best for the people, but the women work in a fairly equal partnership with men, who are the warlike, saber-wearing, horseback-riding element of the tribes. They are proud, romantic, mostly illiterate but nonetheless intelligent people with an oral tradition and an elaborate history. And under the leadership of the charismatic and visionary Ilya Bakhtiian, they have recently grown larger aspirations and are in the process of conquering the khaja within their realm of influence.

The khaja are all the peoples on Rhui who do not follow in this nomadic tradition—those who have settled down into city-states or kingdoms and jealously guard their land for their own people, who speak various local dialects and are unwelcoming to strangers. Their lifestyle differs markedly from that of the jaran, not just because they are not nomadic, but because they follow a more traditional pattern of patrilineal societies in which women have few rights and are treated as chattel. This includes those groups spread out across the landscape of Rhui and also the inhabitants of the city of Jeds, which is the secret stronghold of Charles Soerensen, the aforementioned duke of the planet, known in Jeds as the Prince of Jeds. This city is the de facto capitol of the planet, where there are schools and universities, a library, and supposedly more “civilized” inhabitants, although under their thin veneer of culture, they also subscribe to the unequal treatment of men and women.

The people of Earth associated with Soerensen cautiously visit and explore the planet in various ways, while maintaining a cover as locals. The Chapalii are supposedly forbidden by the interdiction from traveling to Rhui at all, but as the first book opens, we discover they are not all sticking to this contract.

Charles Soerensen’s heir to the “throne” of Jeds (and actually to all his holdings on all planets) is his sister, Tess. She is young, just graduated from university, and is uncertain of the role she wishes to play in Charles’s complex agenda. She is also suffering from a broken heart, and feeling rebellious. So she sneaks aboard a shuttle bound for Rhui, intending to go to Jeds and buy herself a little time to think; but because the Chapalii on her ship are involved in an illegal operation, she ends up getting dumped somewhere out in the wilds, and is picked up after a week of wandering by the leader of the jaran warriors.

Tess decides that she will remain with the jaran people, immersing herself in their society, as the perfect cover for attempting to solve the Chapalii smuggling scheme that put her there on the planet. What she doesn’t reckon with is her seduction by the warmth and inclusiveness of their lifestyle, and her growing feelings for their leader, Ilya Bakhtiian (and his for her).

Whew! That’s a long and complex introduction to an equally elaborate and convoluted story, but if it sounds like something you’d like, definitely invest the time. With each book more conflicts arise, more truths (about each of the peoples depicted) become apparent, and more investment in the future fates of all takes place. And while we do eventually reach an ending that is satisfactory, the potential is there for more about the individuals and the cultures involved, should Elliott ever decide to revisit them. I can’t help hoping that someday she will!

Jaran      earthlycrown

 sword      lawof

The four books are as pictured above: Jaran, An Earthly Crown, His Conquering Sword, and The Law of Becoming. Don’t be put off by the covers (dated looking and unfortunately not great to begin with); two of the four books are out of print at this time anyway. But this could be considered a good thing: Who has room on their bookshelves for four more 500+-page books? Do as I did and buy them as a four-book set on Kindle. If you’re not sure you want to read the whole series, you can get each book individually for the Kindle, but why spend the extra money? I checked out the first one from the library, and then got tired of being on the holds list for the other three and bought the set.

If you have ever had a romantic dream of wandering on horseback with the Travelers; if you have ever wondered how a matrilineal society might work; if you have ever wondered if there are, indeed, aliens among us; this is the series for you. (And do check out the Hainish novels of Ursula K. Le Guin as well!)